I Would Not Be In The Least Surprised To Learn That My Wife Is A Kangaroo, For Any Hypothesis Would Be More Tenable Than The Assumption That She Is A Woman
Flann Oâ€™Brien, author of At Swim-Two-Birds, was one of a kind.Â No, thatâ€™s a lie.Â He was also Brian Oâ€™Nolan, John Hackett, Father Barnabas, John James Doe, and George Knowall.Â Then there was his Gaelic speaking version named Myles na Gopaleen.Â Itâ€™s fucking confusing.Â All I know is that a serial pseudonymist of a drunken Irishman wrote At Swim-Two-Birds in the 1930s shortly after graduating from University College Dublin.Â Actually, I know a few other things too: I know that if I eat too much raw oatmeal Iâ€™ll fart for days, that if I get the Fish Flu Iâ€™ll want to bang a Pink River Dolphin, and that if I donâ€™t choose one name for the author of At Swim-Two-Birds â€“ Iâ€™ll go with Flann Oâ€™Brien since itâ€™s the name on my book jacket â€“ and stick with it, the words that follow will confuse you.Â Theyâ€™ll probably confuse you regardless, and you can blame Father Barnabasâ€¦ I mean Flann Oâ€™Brien for that because I first read his book, At Swim-Two-Birds, at a vulnerable stage in my writing career â€“ if you want to call writing little pieces about books I love for free a writing career â€“ and itâ€™s the kind of book that will, for reasons Iâ€™ll reveal to you, permanently damage a young writerâ€™s brain.
This vulnerable stage of my writing career was when I was in college and, just like the unnamed narrator of Oâ€™Brienâ€™s At Swim-Two-Birds, â€œI was accustomed to stretch myself for many hours upon my bed, thinking and smoking there.â€Â In those days I spent so much time lying around thinking that if the uncle of the unnamed narrator in At Swim-Two-Birds asked me the same question he asked his nephew â€“ â€œA boy of your ageâ€¦who gives himself up to the sin of slothâ€¦what in Godâ€™s name is going to happen to him when he goes out to face the world?â€ â€“ I could have thought up an answer:Â â€œIâ€™m going to travel to Dublin and become a famous underwear model of Irelandâ€™s finest garments,â€ I would have said.Â And thatâ€™s exactly what I had planned on doing after graduating from college and going out to face the world.
But then, just before getting my diploma and three decades worth of debt, I read At Swim-Two-Birds and in it Oâ€™Brienâ€™s physical description of Finn Mac Cool, the magical giant of Irish folklore whose exploits make up a third of the novel:
â€œEach of his thighs was as thick as a horseâ€™s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.â€
And I realized that the Irish, if that was the kind of physique their heroes possessed, probably had high standards for their underwear models â€“ standards I could never fulfill.Â So instead of moving to Dublin after college, I moved to San Francisco and focused on establishing a solitary, literary career that would forgive my pale, malnourished body covered in tattoos, varicose veins, and bleeding moles.
I was writing before Oâ€™Brien and his description of Finn Mac Cool crushed my dreams of becoming a famous underwear model, but I never wanted to make a career of it.Â I never wanted to die from cirrhosis of the liver with nothing to leave my illegitimate children except a briefcase full of rejection slips.Â But reading At Swim-Two-Birds made me realize I had no choice.Â It made me realize that, since posing in my underwear on billboards wasnâ€™t going to happen, it was only through the written word that I could fully express myself to strangers without getting locked-up in Susanna Kaysenâ€™s old room.
If Oâ€™Brien got At Swim-Two-Birds published in conservative 1930s Ireland without getting committed to the loony bin like poor Susanna, then I figured I could get away with writing whatever I wanted, no matter how crazy.Â Whatâ€™s so crazy about At Swim-Two-Birds?Â Well, thereâ€™s a lot crazy about it, but one example involves Pooka MacPhellimey, â€œa member of the devil class,â€ and the Good Fairy, â€œa voice unsupported by a body.â€Â These two characters argue, page after page, about kangaroos and whether or not they are human.Â Pooka says the kangarooâ€™s pouch was one of Manâ€™s first pockets, and the Good Fairy says the kangaroo isnâ€™t human.Â And from these stances the argument beginsâ€¦
Good Fairy: â€œIn regard to the humanity of kangaroos, to admit a kangaroo unreservedly to be a man would inevitably involve one in a number of distressing implications, the kangaroolity of women and your wife beside you being one example.â€
Pooka: â€œI would not be in the least surprised to learn that my wife is a kangaroo, for any hypothesis would be more tenable than the assumption that she is a woman.â€
Good Fairy: â€œThere is nothing so important as the legs in determining the kangaroolity of a woman. Is there for example fur on your wifeâ€™s legs, Sir?â€
Pooka: â€œI cannot say whether there is fur on my wifeâ€™s legs for I have never seen them nor do I intend to commit myself to the folly of looking at themâ€¦â€
And the argument continues, intermittently broken by excursions into philosophy about the Good and the Bad Numerals, until the two agree that kangaroos probably have the ability to shave their fur off and disguise themselves as women whether they are human or not.Â So the Good Fairy declares that the tail is the only way to spot a kangaroo, but Pooka says that he personally belongs to a â€œclass that is accustomed to treat with extreme suspicion all such persons as are unprovided with tails,â€ and he reveals his own tails, one made up of loose hair and the other hanging from the back of his pajama top.
Such dialogue only begins to expose the craziness that Oâ€™Brienâ€™s pen conjures throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.Â The entire novel is crazy â€“ but also genius.Â Whatâ€™s the difference?Â I donâ€™t know.Â I do know that if you asked me to describe this indescribable novel before I moved to San Francisco, I would have said, â€œManâ€¦ umâ€¦ how aboutâ€¦ trippy.â€Â Yeah, I would have said it was a trippy fucking book. Â But then I surrounded myself with San Franciscoâ€™s literary and academic types â€“ those floating brains attached to bodies almost as non-existent as the Good Fairyâ€™s â€“ and I learned that At Swim-Two-Birds is what they call, â€œPostmodern Meta-fiction.â€
Oâ€™Brien would have hated having such a pompous label attached to his novel, because At Swim-Two-Birds is, at least on one level, an attack on the over-romanticized view of the artist and the novel.Â So you can call it Meta-fiction, or whatever the newest catchphrase among the floating brains is, if you wish, but, for the sake of Oâ€™Brien, I will again start describing At Swim-Two-Birds to people, you included, as trippy.Â Itâ€™s not a suitable description, obviously, but if this plot isnâ€™t trippy, than I donâ€™t know what is:
An unnamed narrator writes a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis who is writing his own novel, a Western, whose cow-KOing protagonists eventually become fed-up with Trellisâ€™s authority as narrator and decide to find the Western writerâ€™s son who they pay to write a novel in which his father, Trellis, is captured, tortured, and killedâ€¦ or something like that.Â Graham Greene, who recommended the novel for publication, compared the antics experienced while reading At Swim-Two-Birds to â€œthe kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.”
Iâ€™ve never watched people smash china on the stage, and these days The Stage and all the people on it belong to China so I doubt Iâ€™ll ever get to experience such glee, but Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s an inspiring sight.Â Iâ€™m sure it would be just as inspiring as my first reading of At Swim-Two-Birds was, and that it too would show me that you can write or smash whatever the fuck you want â€“ whether itâ€™s an argument concerning the humanity of kangaroos or the newest World Power.Â With At Swim-Two-Birds, Oâ€™Brien showed me that there were no limitations to the written word.Â And my young writerâ€™s brain was permanently damaged.
I now write stories without plot-points, characters without realism, dialogue without quotations, and, when daydreaming of more ambitious ventures, novels that â€œhave three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.â€ Since reading At Swim-Two-Birds and all three of its openings and endings, I have also developed an unquenchable taste for beer because of its inclusion of the poem, â€œWorkmanâ€™s Friend,â€ which goes like this:
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of nightâ€”
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
When moneyâ€™s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debtâ€”
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say that you need a change,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
When food is scare and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rareâ€”
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
In time of trouble and lousy strife,
You have still got a darling plan,
You still can turn to a brighter lifeâ€”
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN!
How could a young man resist the lure of beer after reading such a poem?Â I couldnâ€™t, and so, just like Oâ€™Brien and most of the characters in his novels, I began a love-affair with that king of alcoholic beverages that continues to this day.Â My young writerâ€™s brain, like I said, is permanently damaged because of At Swim-Two-Birds.Â I canâ€™t write when sober and I canâ€™t be sober when writing.
So nothing good came from my At Swim-Two-Birds induced brain damage.Â It turned my writing into anarchic gibberish that no publisher pays for, and my drinking into a black-hole for the money I donâ€™t get from publishers to disappear into.Â And it could get worse yet.Â All this rejection and drinking could eventually turn me into a Trellis-like character:
â€œâ€¦a man of average stature but his person was flabby and unattractive, partly a result of his having remained in bed for a period of twenty years. He was voluntarily bedridden and suffered from no organic or other illness. He occasionally rose for very brief periods in the evening to pad about the empty house in his felt slippers or to interview the slavey in the kitchen on the subject of his food or bedclothes. He had lost all physical reaction to bad or good weather and was accustomed to trace the seasonal changes of the years by inactivity or virulence of his pimples. His legs were puffed and affected with a prickly heat, a result of wearing his woolen undertrunks in bed. He never went out and rarely approached the windows.â€
Or I could face the consequences of what the creator of Trellis, the unnamed narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds, had heard happens to those who indulge too freely in alcoholic beverages: â€œunhappy throughout their lives and met with death at the end by a drunkardâ€™s fall, expiring ingloriously at the stair-bottom in a welter of blood and puke,â€ which is how Oâ€™Brien, the creator of both the unnamed narrator and Trellis, ended up.Â And I donâ€™t want that.
I donâ€™t want that because I donâ€™t want the good people at PANK to worry about keeping me away from the drink when interviewing me at the end of my glorious writing career just before I expire at a stair-bottom, which was the main worry of the interviewers of Oâ€™Brien in 1964.Â They had to interview him at eight in the morning so he could return home before the pubs opened and so he couldnâ€™t start drinking before the interview.Â All went as planned until Oâ€™Brien went to the bathroom where he remained until the interviewers dragged him out twenty-five minuets later, drunker than W.C. Fields ever got, and holding an empty whiskey bottle that he had hid in the toilet.Â According to legend, the questions went on â€“ Oâ€™Brien demanding more booze between them â€“ and now the only interview in existence of the writer responsible for At Swim-Two-Birds is unfit for publication.
I donâ€™t want the interviewers from PANK wasting their time like that, but I fear that I read At Swim-Two-Birds too early in my writing career.Â Maybe, if I remove it from my nightstand and drop it in the â€œfreeâ€ box in front of Dog Eared Books for some other poor bastard to get influence by, Iâ€™ll be fine.Â Iâ€™ll put the newest bestseller on my nightstand in its place and read it over and over until its perfectly arched plot, its realistic characters, its flawless grammar, and its single opening and ending reverse the brain damage that Oâ€™Brienâ€™s novel caused me.Â Â But that wonâ€™t happen.Â I love At Swim-Two-Birds too damn much.
I love it so much that I revisit it every year â€“ and certain passages every week.Â Itâ€™s a burlesque slapstick of an orgy that satirizes contemporary Ireland, and all of the Western World for that matter, with a narrative structure and a style â€“ a dozen styles actually â€“ so flawless that the reader is forced through layer after layer of parody, allusion, and unrelenting satire. Some of it is outdated, and some of it is obscure.Â A few readings are required to grasp it all, and even more to understand it all.Â But one reading, with the help of a six-pack, is enough to enjoy the hilarity, wordplay, and craziness that Oâ€™Brien, through At Swim-Two-Birds, has blessed us with.Â Yeah, it will cause you brain damageâ€¦ but itâ€™s brain damage of the best kind.
Christopher Forsley writes and lives in San Francisco. He contributes to 16th & Mission Comix and his book of satire, Bums of the Bay, was recently published by SEVEN7H TANGENT. His first graphic novel, A Joe Story, illustration by his brother, Cameron Forsley, is coming soon.